Arsenal 3 Manchester United 0: How Louis van Gaal might have avoided humiliating defeat

ANALYSIS: We've teamed up with Sports Interactive, the makers of Football Manager, to re-run one the weekend's key game to see how the losers might have prevailed had they done things differently

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The Independent Football

Arsenal blew Manchester United away in the first 19 minutes of their meeting at the Emirates on Sunday. Alexis Sanchez scored twice and Mesut Ozil got the other in a match that Louis van Gaal's side were never close to competing in. So how might things have turned out differently? 


With Arsenal's team and formation remaining the same, Sports Interactive simulated the game over again with various Manchester United line-ups and tactics until it produced an alternative result.

Formation: 4-2-3-1

Line-up: De Gea, Darmian, Jones, Smalling, Blind, Fellaini, Schweinsteiger, Mata, Rooney, Depay, Martial (two changes from the real line-up, Fellaini and Jones in for Carrick and Young; Arsenal remain unchanged)

Final score: Arsenal 1-2 Manchester United (Scorers: Sanchez; Depay, Mata)

The virtual van Gaal is able to overturn Sunday’s comprehensive defeat thanks to some minor tactical changes that opened up space for United’s midfield to operate in. The main beneficiaries of this are Depay and Rooney who both have a much greater influence on the game while United’s deeper central midfielders, Fellaini and Schweinsteiger, win the midfield battle against Coquelin and Cazorla. Defensively though, it is a different story with Alexis Sanchez terrorising United’s right-hand side and Aaron Ramsey testing De Gea from range.

The seed of United’s victory is planted by Fellaini who dominates the midfield contest against Coquelin by using his physicality. He outmuscles and outjumps his opponent and the United defence look to exploit this by utilising Fellaini as often as possible. The extra attention that Fellaini receives from the Arsenal midfield opens up space further up the pitch and allows van Gaal’s men to implement his game plan much more effectively.

Depay is United’s best player on the day earning himself a rating of 8.1. He operates as a shadow striker, off the shoulder of Martial and the combined pace of Van Gaal’s two summer signings gives Mertesacker and Gabriel a torrid time at the back. Depay completes six successful dribbles – three of which lead to clear cut chances and only a couple of good saves from Petr Cech stop him from adding to his goal tally. Martial, meanwhile, has four shots (two of which are on target) and makes three successful dribbles past Gabriel.

Depay’s persistent pressure in the final third eventually yields a goal after a defensive mistake from Mertesacker. Rooney looks to find Depay with a weighted through ball but it initially appears as though Mertesacker will pip the Dutchman to the ball. To the dismay of the Arsenal fans, Mertesacker can only blast the ball into Depay who reacts quicker, runs onto it and finishes off the one-on-one.

Arsenal’s defensive issues do not prevent them from frequently exposing Manchester United’s own frailties at the back. The addition of Blind at left-back stymies much of Ramsey’s attacking output but, on the left, Sanchez is able to turn Darmian inside-out at will. The Chilean is easily Arsenal’s most effective player with six shots (four of which are on target) and an average rating of 7.9. De Gea is able to pull off top drawer saves to deny him but can do nothing about Arsenal’s equaliser. Sanchez dribbles to the edge of the area, plays a one-two with Giroud and blasts the ball into the top corner with his next touch.


Rooney takes on the role of United’s playmaker and takes full advantage of the extra space afforded to him by the workhorse Fellaini by playing a number of probing balls that Arsenal struggle to deal with. His pass completion figures are low, at sixty-one per cent but the fact he creates three clear cut chances shows how confident he is to attempt these risky passes. He eventually gets his reward as he singlehandedly makes United’s winner. Receiving the ball just inside the United half he is allowed to move into space and, after brushing past Cazorla, he looks up and floats a delicate lofted ball between Gabriel and Cech and into the path of Juan Mata. The Spaniard applies a cool finish into the bottom left corner to give United all three points. 


Football Manager uses a vast database - compiled by approximately 1,300 researchers across the world (including real-life scouts) - to blend reality and fiction. So impressive is the information that it has become a tool used by real life managers. The painstakingly detailing simulation of club management, which allows players to control every aspect of a manager's role, from scouting new player to tactics and training, has sold millions of copies worldwide.